We don’t call it Fall, here in South Africa. We do it the English way. We call it autumn.
Be that as it may, fall has arrived, including this morning an unseasonal thunderstorm and rain. It’s not just the weather that is changing, folks, it’s the climate, as you know of course, unless you’ve had your head in the sand, or in Fox News’s ass. In Teilfingen, in Germany, our friends Lisa and Klaus have had snow, no less out of place at this time of the year, except that our expectations about what to expect weather-wise at any given time of the year now need to change.
This is not just an inconvenience, it’s a global emergency. But let me not go on about that now. It’s the weekend, right, and we just want to relax.
Not that we can go anywhere relaxing, what with the lockdown and the rising threat of a third wave of Covid. Here, too, one could rattle one’s chains and mutter something foreboding about the encroachment of farming and human settlements on wild spaces and wildlife, the inevitable risks of animal to human transmission of viruses and disease – but again, let me not spoil your lunch.
Which comes, I guess, from a farm somewhere, or many farms, some of them close by and others in far, exotic lands, flown in by air, trailing not clouds of glory as in William Blake’s poem but carbon emissions and … oh, dear, there I go again. Must be something in the water, though in this water scarce country, not to mention incompetence and misgovernment, even a reliable water supply can’t be taken for granted. Ask Cape Town.
Fall, it seems, is not just about autumn, it’s about Man’s Fall – oh blast. Not Man’s Fall, people’s fall, their fall, they being both singular and plural and extremely awkward these days.
(The thing to do, I’ve been slow to learn, but am learning slowly, is that when you’re digging yourself a hole, it’s time to stop digging.)
That goes for you, too, humanity. Stop digging us all a hole!
Ahem. So here, to soothe your shattered nerves, and to make up if I can for my lack of consideration, my disturbance of the peace, calm and tranquility we expect as our due as members of the middle class, are four images of fall – of farms, and barns, and autumn light. The time, October. The place: Prince Edward County.
Rob and I live in hope that one day soon, armed with our jabs and our vaccination certificates, we will climb on board a plane, and fly all the way back home, across the warming oceans, to our little heated house in Toronto, and then drive up some time to revisit the county.
If you have been following along on Facebook on our 3700km road trip through the small towns of the Karoo, the Western Cape and all the way back to Johannesburg, you will have been following a story written partly in pictures – pictures taken, not for the photography but for the story, and on an iPhone rather than a camera.
This is a departure for me – I have tended to disregard the iPhone’s picture-taking ability, in part because my photographic interests lie elsewhere, and in part because I have never really taken the iPhone seriously as a photographic instrument.
My wife, on the other hand, takes exactly the opposite approach – she uses her iPhone almost all of the time, to capture the everyday moments of our lives, and only hauls out one of the large and clunky cameras I have lent her when there is a specific subject to be addressed. You can’t really take wildlife pictures on a phone, but you can take great pictures on a Nikon DSLR with a telephoto lens.
So, as I was saying, I used the phone a lot, on this trip, to capture the kinds of everyday images that could illustrate our travels, and – this is important – that could be uploaded easily to Facebook or Instagram, without complicated processing or file transfers. And I have to say it was liberating, and also quite satisfying: not only was the phone easy to use, and convenient but, with the controls afforded by the Halide camera app, it was capable of producing quite effective images, too.
All of this meant that I was free to snap away with the minimum of fuss; and free, too, to use the Nikon in a more considered and selective way, for only those images that I could see in my mind’s eye not as snaps or selfies but real ‘photographs’.
So, in future when we travel, I will use both of these tools, the phone and the camera, for the purposes they are best suited to and, in the process, I hope, will find a new kind of creative flexibility and freedom.
What then of the photographs?
If you have been following, as I said, the story on Facebook, you will have seen the first of these more ‘serious’ images is the series of NG Kerk images I have been posting. And, of course, there is a story behind this choice of subject – not very complicated, but a story nonetheless – one I will return to.
To mix things up a bit, though, and to keep things interesting, I thought I would start this blog post, and those that will follow, with a set of images that I haven’t yet posted on Facebook, and rather than using the photographs to tell the story of our travels, tell the story of the photographs instead.
I will start in McGregor, a little Karoo town in the Western Cape, where we spent a couple of days on our way down south. The town itself is quite charming, set against the mountains in the dry Karoo, a harsh and arid landscape that manages somehow to support vineyards as well as sheep and goats. Like the rest of South Africa, it is also a place where poverty and inequality are starkly evident, but kept on the margins of what is still a mostly white, affluent village.
It would have been easy to focus, in these photographs, on the prettier, cottagey, quaint blah blah side of McGregor but what I wanted, even though time was limited, and we were on holiday, was to capture something else: a sense of the ruggedness and isolation of the area, for one thing; a recognition of the poverty and hardship that the area’s coloured population experiences; and something too about the almost abstract, spiritual purity of the place – the vast blue skies, the open spaces, the simple geometry and the forms of things.
The image above, for instance, captures to my mind the almost lunar planes of the surrounding mountains, as well as the isolation of that small white homestead. Look, too, at the telephone pole and telephone line at the bottom of the picture – a symbol of connection, perhaps, a link to civilisation, but also, perhaps, a crucifix.
The next image, of workers’ cottages high on a mountain pass above the village, captures the same harsh landscape, the same isolation: but the cottages, with the laundry drying on the line, are not simply markers of poverty or isolation, they are people’s homes, lived in, occupied – remote but human.
The choice of black and white in these images was deliberate, of course: but in these next few images colour seemed the more appropriate medium for what I wanted to express – even though, in formal terms, each of these images would work well in black and white also.
First, ‘The People’s Choice,’ a shop on the margins of the town serving mostly the coloured community. I took several photographs of this, from different angles, taken by the bold advertisements, the splash of colour. In a couple of the images, I caught a man sauntering across the street and into the shop; in others, there was a glimpse of the poor streets behind. But in the end, it was this plain, frontal shot, with the man in the doorway and the bicycle propped against the wall, that seemed to me to make the most effective statement.
I mentioned earlier the – alongside the harshness, the isolation, the poverty of the coloured community – almost abstract sense of purity, simplicity, that you feel in this place; and these two images, I hope, abstract, detached from their wider context, say something about this.
Join me next time, for the next in this series of stories about photographs.
We all see this every day: headlines that scream, ‘Five things you should stop doing right now!’ ‘Three things you need to know.’ ‘Scared of the stock market? Do this today!’ And on and on and on, from all corners, all comers, every wannabe pundit and pretend journalist and (groan) aspirant ‘influencer.’
Who are these people? What makes them so smart? What makes them think I’m so dumb? Why do they treat me like a distracted three-year old? And what’s with the relentless, didactic language of self-improvement, as if life is one big football football match, a game you only can win if everyone around you is a coach, constantly yelling instructions? Do this. Do that. Stop doing the other thing.
So here’s where I get off the bus – cheers, folks, have yourselves a blast. This fella is about as improved as he is going to get, about as knowledgeable (or clueless) as he is going to be, about as grown up, at 67, as seems possible, or likely, or even desirable (it’s all downhill from here, anyway, isn’t it?)
Not for me the life of endless self-improvement. I’m happy as I am. With the time I have left, the attention span I can still muster, the air left in my lungs and the blood that still beats in my veins, it’s a walk in the woods that beckons, a volume of poems, an afternoon at the AGO with the Group of Seven painters, a day spent making photographs, a glass of wine, a meal, an evening with my wife.
I’m getting off the bus. But before I go, here are five things you should stop telling me to do:
Rob and I agree, there is something unreal about our lives right now. This odd sense of unreality rests, uneasily, on a simple fact: after more than four years of living in South Africa, we are just six months away from packing up our rented townhouse in Johannesburg, moving out and – Covid willing – getting onto a plane to return to Toronto.
Which means that in six months’ time we will be opening up our own house, on Marchmount Road, getting our things out of storage, stocking the refrigerator, making up the bed, rediscovering the neighbourhood, reconnecting with family and friends.
Here in Johannesburg, meanwhile, we have begun going through our things, figuring out what to toss, what to sell, what to give away and what, depending on whether we ship things home in a small container, or decide to bring what we can in our luggage, we will take back to Canada.
Already Kath and Gareth have been through the house in Parkmore with us, pointing out what they would like to take over when we leave – bedside tables, desks, office chairs, artwork, a whole kitchen-full of pots and pans, crockery, utensils.
I am glad that some of our stuff, at least, will find a proper home, and remain connected to us, in some sense.
So this is the thing: we are here, and we are almost not here. Our heads, as Rob likes to insist, are here in the present, and yet, as we both admit, there is an air of unreality to all this. Not the unreality of not believing in the present, but the unreality of knowing that this too too solid earth will vanish, this time and effort and hard work we have invested in South Africa, this time we have spent with family here, and friends, will come to an end, and our former lives, our Toronto lives, our lives in Canada, will resume. We will step back into the past, and into the future at the same time.
Meanwhile there is work to be done, and there are people to see, and places to visit. And a whole lot of packing and sorting.
Apropos of nothing at all, here are some photographs of Prince Edward County, one of our favourite places in Ontario – a sub-conscious reminder, perhaps, that winter this year will be different.
Let me wake within your eyes
And sleep again in your safe arms,
Free from the terrors of surprise
Protected from all worldly harms:
I swear your love, with its strong powers,
Will raise a man so joyful, true,
He'll charm the desert into flowers
And give the sun and moon to you.
At a time like this, when half the world is on lockdown because of the pandemic, when civility and decency and the very foundations of democracy seem at risk in the face of racist populism and rabid know-nothingness, when the planes are grounded and we can barely venture out of our houses, when our ‘advanced’ societies are humbled by a virus, there is something to be learned from stories on stones.
The World Heritage Site at Twyfelfontein, in Namibia, is a moonscape of waterless rock and stone, tones of orange and black against a blue relentless sky. The name – Twyfelfontein – means ‘fountain of doubt’ or ‘doubtful fountain,’ a reference to the spring that sometimes ran, and sometimes didn’t, somewhere near here. A name for our times, perhaps, and a reminder of our dependence on air, water – the simplest, yet irreplaceable things – for our very existence.
Yet people lived here, in this inhospitable landscape, somewhere between a thousand and two thousand years ago, people who possessed an art and culture, the traces of which are written in stone, in rock engravings, which are now a world treasure.
The engravings at Twyfelfontein offer a record of more than just a people, however. They offer a window on a natural environment, a world of mountains and grasslands that has long disappeared.
Look at the engravings, then look around, and think what has changed, what has been lost – how this barren terrain of sharp stones and rock once was home to elephant, giraffe, antelope, lion, rhino, hyena.
And think, that as this world has vanished, so too may our world, unless we face up to a challenge that is even more of a threat to us than the Covid-19 virus, the existential threat of climate change. A threat which – whether you are a head-in-the-sand climate change denier, or a believer in science and evidence – will take its course regardless of our opinions, just as the virus has, unless we take action.
But looking at these photographs also brings with it a simpler and more obvious message, a narrative of freedom and travel, and a reminder how travel shows us that our taken for granted worlds are not necessarily the worlds that everyone else lives in, and that the present is not the same as the past, nor is it the future.
More simply still, I look at these photographs, from our trip to Namibia in 2016, and I want to get out on the road again, big skies overhead, and the warm wind blowing.
Then I think of the heat – stunning, and the light – blinding – the hot climb stumbling over boulders, the views of the shimmering plains and the fortress-like mountains, the being intensely present in the moment, and I remember John Lennon’s saying that life is what happens when we are busy with other things, and I look down at the stones, and they tell me stories.
What to do in a lock-down? This is a question to myself, you’ll be glad to hear, not another of those claims to instant expertise, sunny wisdom, righteous outrage or uniquely personal angst or fear that seem to be spreading around the globe with the speed and virulence of, well, a Coronavirus or a Donald Trump.
So nothing, then, about that squalid little misfit in the White House, nothing even about our so much more admirable and principled President Ramaphosa, no homilies about how to keep fit, or sane, or just plain human.
We are in Day Three of our lock-down, here in Johannesburg. Keeping to ourselves, as we should. We are fortunate. We have our comfortable town-house, with its patio and garden and plunge pool and barbecue. The fridge and freezer are full. Rob has a studio where she can work on her collages, I have an upstairs office from where I can look out at the sky and some trees while I work, or while I video-conference on Zoom, or add a few lines to my novel – there is always a novel, in process, waiting patiently, without cynicism, to step outside, into the light of day. The novel has learned nothing, in more than forty years. It lives in hope. And there is a backlog of photographs waiting to be processed, to be selected and polished and posted on Flickr, a catalogue large enough to outlast this pestilence and any pestilences to come.
So we are, as I say, fortunate. We have kept in touch with family and friends, or they have kept in touch with us, via WhatsApp and FaceTime. As always there are jokes, there are inquiries about one another’s health, about how we are doing. We are doing fine, thank you. A-okay. Normal. Yet there is something in the air, isn’t there, an undercurrent of concern, that wasn’t there before. Like an odour or gas, as I wrote in my diary – yes, I have resumed my diary, too. There are unexpected benefits to being locked up at home.
It won’t be so easy for the people of Alex, for those who are unemployed, who live in the townships or in the poverty-stricken rural areas of South Africa; it won’t be so easy for the vast majority in this country who are unimaginably worse off than we are.
And it won’t be so easy for those on the front lines – the doctors and health-care workers, obviously, but also for the army and the police who are trying to keep the streets clear, the supermarket staff who need to get to work each day, the people who pick up the garbage or – for now at least, thank you Eskom – keep the lights on. Spare them a thought, and a prayer if you have one.
There is a strange sense of calm. Is this the phony war, you wonder, as you follow the news? The pretend-war before the real one arrives? And how bad will it be? Perhaps we will – all of us here in South Africa – get off quite lightly. And perhaps we won’t.
It is too early to tell. So back to our pastimes and interests we will go, to our photographs and collages, to catching up on films – we watched The Piano again, last night, and it still packs a wallop – and following the news while we try not to obsess.
Rosendal, in the Eastern Free State, is a small village with big skies. Rob and I drove down on New Year’s Day, from Johannesburg, taking our lives in our hands over the last twenty or thirty kilometres of dangerously potholed roads, a legacy of Ace Magashule’s thieving and mendacious premiership of the province.
Then you arrive, and find your AirBnB, on the far edge of the village, with nothing before you but a garden gate, a dirt road, farmland and cattle, and dramatic cliffs rising up to the no-less dramatic storm clouds that gather each afternoon.
There is nothing to do but read, walk, braai, watch the cloudscapes and the birds, drop in at Benjamin’s for waffles, take a few photographs. That’s the whole point of going there – to do nothing.
So here are four black-and-white photographs, taken from Die Rooi Haan, where we stayed – the fruits of just the right kind of idleness, before the new year kicks in with its meetings and reports, its busy-ness and distraction.
Die Rooi Haan, by the way, is a place that Rob and I would absolutely recommend – perfectly situated, simply but beautifully furnished, with a large covered porch overlooking the farmlands and mountains.
As always, click on the images to enlarge. I hope that you like them.
My son’s in-laws, the Thompsons, give ‘Plaisance‘ as their address in France, but actually they live a few kilometres outside the village, on a narrow road that hugs the hillside above a lovely valley.
The village itself sits astride a three-way junction, which might create the impression that it is quite large, but in reality it just another picturesque smattering of houses and a church in the countryside of Aveyron.
‘Our happy place,’ my son and the Thompsons call it.
Aveyron is Rocquefort country, the country where Lacaune sheep crowd together, grazing, on the steepest of green-clad hillsides.
We saw these in the valley far below, from the road out of Plaisance, as we made our way to the plateau above en route to Albi.
As you will see, I have processed one of these images, the closer view, in colour, and the wider, landscape image in black-and-white. I could have done both of them in colour, or in black-and-white – either way, both have their appeal for me, although, if I am honest, it is the wider landscape, in monochrome, that to my mind has more atmosphere, and more, perhaps, of a sense of place.